technology

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Which African city Tweets the most? | 

A new map shows the tweets sent out from Africa’s 20 most populated cities, in the period of 24 hours. Geo-located tweets were tracked over the last three months of 2013 to determine the trends. Coming in number one is Johannesburg with 344,215 geo-located tweets. The top five include Ekurhuleni (264,172); Cairo (227,509); Durban (163,019); and Alexandria (159,534).

The findings should not come as too much of a surprise. English, French and Arabic are the predominant languages and the highest level of activity took place on the day that Nelson Mandela died. Analysis comes from a business perspective for the Nairobi-based Portland Communications, the group that carried out the analysis.

Football (not the American kind) was the most discussed topic. Politics did not fare so well, but brands seem to be making some gains.

“The African Twittersphere is changing rapidly and transforming the way that Africa communicates with itself and the rest of the world. Our latest research reveals a significantly more sophisticated landscape than we saw just two years ago. This is opening up new opportunities and challenges for companies, campaigning organisations and governments across Africa,” said Allan Kamau, Head of Portland Nairobi, in a release.

Kenyan farmers skeptical, lack knowledge about GMOs | 

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A diseased stalk of maize in western Kenya.

Malava, Kenya – With a maize disease spreading across western Kenya, farmers are in need of seed alternatives and some are advocating the use of seeds genetically modified to fight disease.

However, genetically modified crops (aka GMOs, genetically modified organisms) are not yet a viable option for smallholder farmers. They are not an option for any farmer in Kenya.

The Kenyan government announced a ban of GMOs at the end of 2012. Only a year earlier it used GM corn to meet the emergency hunger needs of Kenyans caused by the drought across the Horn of Africa.

“The ban will remain in effect until there is sufficient information, data and knowledge demonstrating that GMO foods are not a danger to public health,” said the official statement.

The government announced that testing would commence in 2013 to determine the safety of bringing GMOs into Kenya. Pressure is on Kenya to change course and allow GMOs to gain entrance from advocates and even the US.

While Western nations battle over whether or not to label foods as GM or whether to ban them altogether, Kenya is still in the process of determining if they should be legalized. At a time when rain patterns are changing and people living in the north are vulnerable to drought, the potential of improved seed presents a lot of promise for Kenyan farmers. Continue reading

Smartphones aren’t making cybercafes obsolete in Global South | 

One might expect that with growing access to cheap smartphones around the world, cybercafes are destined for the wastebin of history. Why pay a fee to use a stodgy old desktop computer to get online? It’s all in the palms of our hands now.

A new study from the University of Washington turns that logic on its head. “One technology doesn’t replace the other. People need large, broadband service,” says Chris Coward, the director of UW’s Technology and Social Change Group. He says the five-year study shows definitively that mobile phones, contrary to some claims, “will not solve the access problem.”

Coward and his team scoured the earth, working with local research teams and surveying more than 5,000 computer users in Bangladesh, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Lithuania, Philippines and South Africa. What they found seems counter-intuitive.

“We saw large usership in every place we visited,” Coward says, of libraries, telecenters and cybercafes. Continue reading

How a prize-winning computer programmer fights poverty | 

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Yaw Anokwa

If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital in the developing world, you see all kinds of problems. Sometimes conditions are decrepit, or the facility is understaffed, or it’s charging too much for healthcare.

Then there’s “the paper problem.” Data about each patient – name, age, symptoms, everything that’s critical to good treatment – gets scrawled on slips of paper. Often these slips get filed away, but they’re inaccurate or badly written. Or they get lost. The whole system is cumbersome and slow, which means worse health outcomes for patients.

In a challenging resource-poor setting, how do you solve this issue?

Yaw Anokwa figured it out. He’s one of the minds behind the Open Data Kit (ODK), a data collection platform that’s been implemented in hospitals in Rwanda and Kenya, where the it cut down processing times for AIDS patients  by months. Farmers in Uganda, street children in India, election monitors, even environmental activists in Brazil – all of them have used Open Data Kit in innovative ways to collect data using smartphones and then use the information swiftly and productively.

Anokwa himself has come a long way. He moved to the United States from Ghana at a young age, and his passion for computer programming once got him suspended from school for a week. Now he has a new software company called Nafundi whose business is built around ODK.

Tom Paulson talks to Anokwa about his personal story, why he eschews more lucrative technology work, and where Open Data Kit goes from here. ODK is an amazing technology, but the story of how Anokwa has used it – carefully, keeping it open-source, and in partnerships with local organizations around the world – is just as important. Before the interview, our Boston correspondent Tom Murphy and I discuss the headlines from this week, including food aid and corruption.

Listen to the end for Anokwa’s tantalizing comments on what the next generation of this technology looks like. (And don’t forget to subscribe to the Humanosphere podcast on iTunes.)

Burma: Past, Present, and Future | 

Welcome to the Humanosphere podcast, our weekly look at the world of global health and development. Tom and I begin with a discussion on the headlines – everything from May Day in Seattle and Bangladesh to abortion access in El Salvador.

Then we turn to Burma, also known as Myanmar. We speak with Pwint Htun, who left Burma in ninth grade amidst a violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, and resettled here in Seattle.

Her mother, a doctor, treated wounded demonstrators, and her family was blacklisted and forced to flee. Htun was the first recipient of a Prospect Burma scholarship, established using the prize money Aung San Suu Kyi donated after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. When Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008, she coordinated shipments of over 12 million water purification tablets into Burma.

These days, she’s making frequent trips back to Burma as a telecommunications consultant for The World Bank and others. The country has embarked on a process of reforms but where will it go from here? Htun gives us an inside-look at Burma past, present, and future, including its brief stint of democratic rule after colonialism. And she explains what useful, as opposed to harmful, interventions in Burma by Western businesses and NGOs should look like.

Listen below.

Geek Heretic takes on Google: It’s not the technology, stupid! | 

Kentaro Toyama
Kentaro Toyama

Our resident Geek Heretic Kentaro Toyama, a renowned computer scientist and former top executive at Microsoft Research, has decided to take on the gist of a new book on technology’s promise by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in an article for The Atlantic.

The article is entitled Our Future Might Be Bright: The Tentative, Rosy Predictions of Google’s Eric Schmidt though he did consider giving it the title ‘It’s Not the Technology, Stupid!’ which we here at Humanosphere like better. Read on to see why … Continue reading

Geek Heretic explains why technology can’t solve the poverty problem | 

Kentaro Toyama is a geek heretic, or at least, that’s what Tom Paulson dubbed him last year. Now it’s the working title for Toyama’s upcoming book. Toyama is a renowned computer scientist and expert in computer-human visual interactions. He helped launch Microsoft Research in India in 2005 and was dispatched by Bill Gates to find technological solutions to poverty and inequity. After giving it his best, Toyama decided technology, though useful, cannot fix poverty.

Kentaro Toyama
Kentaro Toyama in the studio

One of the commenters on Toyama’s ideas last year wasn’t convinced: “If he is only talking about current things like personal computers, sure. But when we get 3D Printers that can make more replicators, nanobots and the like, he is totally wrong.”

It’s certainly tempting to think that next generation of futuristic technologies can change the world. But Toyama has seen innovative technology rendered powerless, harmful even, in settings of severe poverty. He says the problems require even deeper solutions.

So we get deep into the issues in the podcast. Listen in below.

Nathan Myhrvold: Patent Troll, Inventor and now Global Do-Gooder | 

When folks talk about Nathan Myhrvold, they seldom use muted terms.

Tom Paulson

Nathan Myhrvold, speaking at Social Innovations Fast Pitch 2012

The former chief technologist for Microsoft is a close associate of Bill Gates and now CEO of a business, Intellectual Ventures, which some say holds more patents (about 40,000) than any other company in the United States.

I wanted to talk to Myhrvold about his recent ventures into philanthropy, into humanitarianism, which his firm has dubbed its “Global Good” project.

But first, I should disclose that I once worked for Nathan as one of a number of assisting writers on his mega-cookbook Modernist Cuisine. I helped write the meat chapter. (We sometimes argued over the words. He was difficult, I would say. He might say the same about me. But I think we’re all happy with the book.)

I should also note Myhrvold is frequently accused of being a patent troll — meaning he and his firm buy up patents and then use them to, uh, encourage (some use different words) other companies to pay them royalties or licensing fees. Here’s one such recent news post on GigaOm that talks about the Bellevue-based firm “bleeding billions from creative companies” using threats of litigation and disguised “shell companies.”

The writer goes on to say Myhrvold runs a ‘dark empire’ that stalks its victims! Is this Lord of the Rings or something? Like I said, he does tend to provoke strong feelings.

Myhrvold also provokes strong praise. He is frequently described as a master inventor in his own right, a brilliant polymath, an accomplished paleontologist (as this New Yorker profile noted) and, of course, a gourmet chef.

But the Nathan Myhrvold I’m most interested in is a fairly new one — Nathan the humanitarian technologist. Continue reading